Ford continues to push further

Alan Mulally and Steve Wozniak

We’ve seen many large companies, particularly automakers, rest on their laurels and become insular organizations. It’s easy to get into this rut when you measure profits in the billions and you have a huge bureaucracy.

But we’ve also seen how this attitude can lead to disaster, with the auto industry being just one example. Remember Atari? The flip side to measuring profits in the billions is measuring losses in the billions as well when things go wrong.

The culture at Ford seems very different today as the company tries to demonstrate each year in its Further with Ford conferences, where media members, bloggers and social media influencers from a wide variety of backgrounds are invited to hear from company officials, attend panel discussions from thought leaders, and of course get introduced to new Ford products and initiatives.

We were happy to attend the Further with Ford conference again this year, and CEO Alan Mulally kicked things off with an address on Monday night and was joined on stage by tech icon Steve Wozniak who would join the technology panel the next day.

Along with Chairman Bill Ford who spoke to us the next morning, Mulally has set the tone for the new Ford. The company is fiercely competing in the marketplace, while also trying to identify and adopt to trends in our fast-changing world that can impact their products on how consumers use them. Bill Ford repeated the example of car-sharing service ZipCar and how companies like that are challenging past assumptions about the auto market. Rather than ignore this development, Ford persuaded his skeptical executive team and decided to partner with ZipCar, which then ended up being an effective platform to promote Ford vehicles.

What’s most impressive about these conferences is Ford’s willingness to have real discussions with independent thought leaders who will speak their mind about the topics at hand. In one panel called “Returning to Your Senses,” the panel addressed how gadgets are infiltrating every waking moment of our lives. While Ford executive Gary Strumolo was touting new ways to interact with Ford vehicles to monitor health, MIT professor Sherry Turkle was explaining how our addition to devices was potentially harming our children, our relationships and our ability to have much needed moments of solitude. The resulting discussion was a very good one, but it showed that Ford was less interested in a scrubbed-over PR message as opposed to generating a real conversation. This willingness to address the ideas that challenge company priorities is critical to having a dynamic culture that will make a company thrive, as opposed to an insular culture where the executive team’s decisions are treated like dogma. By listening to concerns of thought leaders like Ms. Turkle, hopefully Ford can make better and informed decisions as they add more technology and interactivity to our vehicles.

The same dynamic was present in the technology panel. Ford unveiled a series of videos showing the Ford Evos concept car and how it might interact with a driver in the future. Some of the ideas were interesting, while others seemed to be trying to find a driver need or desire to fit a technology. The personalization features prompted a series of privacy questions and concerns from the media, and Steve Wozniak didn’t hesitate to emphasize that concern, pointing out that Ford and other large companies couldn’t just rely on acceptance of terms and conditions when someone starts using new features, because we always say yes in order to proceed. Instead, a real system that lets users know how their information is used with easy opt-out options for each feature is critical. That discussion probably wasn’t at the top of the Ford representative’s list as he wanted to focus on the cool new features, but again the panel was able to have a real discussion about privacy along with the technology.

The best panel by far covered design and included author Seth Godin, Jay Ward from Pixar, retailing entrepreneur Rachel Shechtman and Ford design chief J Mays. Godin touched on one of his favorite topics, as the concept of “normal” is fading away as society becomes more interconnected, making it easier for like-minded people to interact. With that in mind, companies who try to please everyone by aiming at the middle are having less success, while targeting groups who were once considered weird, or outside the mainstream, with excellent products can now lead to greater success. We’re seeing that thankfully in the auto industry as we’re seeing far fewer vehicles that seem to have been designed by committee. In trying to please everyone, you please no one.

Seth Godin

Another interesting story came from Jay Ward, who explained how Pixar approached one unnamed Detroit automaker about collaborating when Pixar was making “Cars” but was turned down. But J Mays and Ford gladly accepted the invitation. It may seem like an obvious decision now, but in old Detroit it’s not surprising that wouldn’t consider such a partnership.

Lastly, I got to drive some great cars as well and I’ll be following up with reports on each of them. The one that stands out was the Ford Fusion plug-in hybrid, which is just one example of Ford’s push into electric vehicles. In this hybrid Fusion, the braking system helps to recharge the battery, and each time you brake the dashboard will let you know how efficient you were in terms of transferring energy to the battery as a percentage all the way up to 100%.

Innovation requires a culture that is willing to challenge established beliefs. It can be difficult for large companies to develop and then maintain such a culture, but it appears Ford has found a formula that works.

Ford Fusion plug in hybrid

  

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First Drive: 2014 Nissan Versa Note

After updating the 4-door Versa sedan, Nissan has now turned to the 5-door hatchback with the all-new 2014 Versa Note. While they share the Versa name, the vehicles hardly look like siblings, with the 4-door Versa having the new Nissan grille across their sedan lineup while the Versa Note has a completely different front fascia that’s much more appropriate for the hatchback design. Buyers in this segment thus have two options from Nissan depending on their style tastes and practical needs.

Exterior

Nissan is the leader in this segment with both versions of the Versa offering designs that appeal to a wider demographic. They aren’t going with “quirky” design concepts in an attempt to woe younger buyers. The target market includes practical buyers in their 30s, particularly couples without children, looking for “functionality, versatility and value” but still wanting a stylish vehicle. You can see from the photos that the design should appeal to this target market along with a wider demographic without turning anyone off with design elements that are too aggressive.

Interior

Nissan is emphasizing the roominess of the interior, and I was impressed when I sat in the back seat. There’s plenty of legroom and you don’t feel like you’re in a compact vehicle. The Versa Note offers a segment-leading 38.3 inches of back row legroom and 21.4 cubic feet of cargo space. The Versa Note also offers a Drive-N-Hide adjustable floor in the back so drivers can tuck away items like computers. The front seats also offered plenty of room so I never felt cramped in the Note.

They’re targeting buyers with an active lifestyle, so the functionality provided by the back hatch and fold-down back seats will be emphasized in their marketing plan, and you can see in the slideshow above a Versa Note that was loaded up with surfing gear for all of us to check out.

The interior design is more understated than what you’ll see in other vehicles in this segment, which is consistent with Nissan’s goals with the Versa. Nissan is offering a robust technology package with a 5.8” touch-screen. I particularly like the Google Send-to-Car feature that lets drivers send an address from Google Maps directly to the navigation system of the vehicle. The Around View Monitor is particularly impressive and makes parking much easier. Just recently a feature like this was a selling point for higher end luxury cars, and now buyers can get it in a much less expensive vehicle.

Performance

Fuel efficiency is another priority with the Versa Note, with 40 miles per gallon on the highway and a best-in-class 31 MPG city and 35 MPG combined. All the automakers are laser-focused on weight reduction, and Nissan was able to reduce the weight of the Note by over 300 pounds when compared to the previous hatchback model. Improvements to the CVT engine also helped to achieve these numbers.

With the emphasis on fuel economy, it’s no surprise that the Versa Note didn’t blow me away with its performance. Still, the Note handles very well and I did enjoy our test drive along the San Diego coastline. The vehicle does not have a Sport or Eco drive mode option which is becoming more popular in small and larger vehicles.

Overview

I like what Nissan has done with the new Versa and Versa Note, and they obviously know this segment as they’ve been the sales leader since 2008. They have two options with the four and five-dour versions that appeal to a wide variety of buyers. The vehicles are practical but stylish, and they’re not trying to be too cute with the designs. I’ll be surprised if this strategy doesn’t lead to continued success.

  

Picture of the Day: Aubrey in lacy lingerie

Lovely blonde model Aubrey looks seductive in lacy lingerie.

Aubrey in lacy lingerie

  

App of the Week: Spaceteam

Developer: Henry Smith

Compatible with: iPod Touch, iPad, iPhone (optimized for iPhone 5)

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: Free

Available: here

I have a terrible confession to make.

When it comes to picking apps, I’m not infallible. While always striving to find the best of the best in the world of apps, occasionally something comes along that doesn’t cross my radar until too late, and becomes so popular I see no reason to go back and cover it (*cough*Ridiculous Fishing*cough*).

In the case of “Spaceteam” though, there’s actually a fair chance you haven’t heard of this app, even though it’s attracted a devout following since its recent release. Even if you have though, surely after playing it you’ll begrudge me the chance to talk about its brilliance, even if it is a little late.

“Spaceteam’s” core concept is pure simplicity, as it places you and 2-3 friends (Note: game does not come with friends) in control of a spaceship escaping an exploding star, and tasks you all with surviving by hitting a series of buttons and switches all named after techno-babble (Copernicus Crane, for instance) at the right time.

Sounds okay but nothing special right? Well, from there a couple of twists are thrown in that make the game interesting.

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You see, each of your friends has a different control panel filled with unique buttons. When the instructions come in for which ones to press, they don’t always come in to the person who has that button. This is why the game has to be played by people in the same room, as the only way to win is to shout out the instructions you receive and hope the person with the right button on their screen can get to it in time.

While an efficient team can hold out for a while, considering how much the difficulty ramps up, and that your random boards change in each section preventing many shortcuts, you will inevitably lose. In the meantime, you spend most of the game shouting at your friends in not just techno babble, but in encouragements and curses, as you all try to manage your own board, while maintaining even the most basic intelligible form of communication with one another, before devolving to violent grunts.

A game where you spend 90% of the time yelling at each other and losing may not sound like much fun, but it is. At some point you either form an efficient and serious team to progress, or just start laughing at how bad things are going. Either way, it’s incredibly fun to share a room with people all united over a single experience that brings back memories of “Goldeneye” parties, “Halo” LAN fests, or even “Pictionary.” This is a party game in the true sense of the phrase, and has few equals on the mobile scene both in terms of its idea, and certainly its execution.

But really you don’t have to take my word for it. Get a few people and try “Spaceteam” yourself and its greatness will become apparent mere minutes in. It’s not often a game so instantly accessible manages to be worth months of play time, and promotes local gaming with friends, which is why late or not, “Spaceteam” is my app of the week.

  

Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to July

july_movies

Audiences have seen quite a few big movies may their way into theaters over the past two months, but the onslaught of summer tentpole films isn’t even close to over. In fact, we’ve just reached the midway point of the season, and as you might expect, there’s plenty more big blockbusters on their way, including a potential new Disney franchise for Johnny Depp, Guillermo del Toro’s answer to Godzilla, and the return of Wolverine.

“THE LONE RANGER”

Who: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner and Helena Bonham Carter
What: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.
When: July 3rd
Why: Disney may think that they have another ready-made hit on their hands with this big screen adaptation of the popular radio serial, but I don’t know many people that are actually excited about “The Lone Ranger,” and that includes myself. Though Johnny Depp will almost certainly be a riot as the dead-bird wearing Tonto (he’s at his best when playing eccentric characters), Armie Hammer has yet to prove himself as a viable leading man. Additionally, the rumors about the film’s troubled production don’t exactly exude confidence, and although “World War Z” taught us not to take behind-the-scenes drama at face value, there hasn’t been a single trailer released yet that doesn’t make the movie look like one really expensive mess.

“THE WAY, WAY BACK”

Who: Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell and Amanda Peet
What: Over the course of his summer break, a teenager comes into his own thanks in part to the friendship he strikes up with one of the park’s managers.
When: July 5th
Why: After becoming a smash hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the coming-of-age comedy ignited a bidding war, with Fox Searchlight ultimately acquiring the rights for a near-record $10 million. The indie studio clearly believes that the film can replicate the box office success of “Little Miss Sunshine” (it even features two of the actors from that movie in Steve Carell and Toni Collete), and if the festival buzz is to be believed, an awards campaign might not be too far behind. The film marks the directorial debuts of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who first turned industry heads with their Oscar-winning script for “The Descendants,” and boasts a star-studded cast that also includes Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Though it may seem like an odd time of the year to release such a small comedy, it’s actually a smart piece of counterprogramming that could work to its benefit.

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